Leviticus 16 and 23 – The Day of Atonement and the Liturgical Calendar


Leviticus 16 and 23


In chapter 16, the Lord gives instructions to Moses about observing the Day of Atonement. In chapter 23, the calendar of religious festivals is established.


In these two chapters, the Israelites are instructed to observe certain “holy convocations” and “appointed festivals” (23:2). There are six such festivals, three in the spring–Festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread, Festival of Firstfruits, and the Festival of Weeks–and three in the fall–the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths. The weekly observance of the Sabbath heads the list in chapter 23, reflecting the priestly concern with the Sabbath (compare Genesis 2:2-3). There are four other such liturgical calendar texts in the Pentateuch. Leviticus 23, along with Numbers 28-29, are the only two texts that list all the major holy days.

The rituals for the Day of Atonement are described in detail in Leviticus 16. This is the only day in the whole year when the high priest can enter the innermost part of the sanctuary, the holy of holies. There, he offers incense and sprinkles the blood of sacrifices to make atonement for the sanctuary, for himself, and for the people. The ritual for the Day of Atonement also includes the practice of the high priest laying hands on the head of a goat and confessing the people’s sins–thereby ritually laying the burden of those sins on the goat–then sending the goat out into the wilderness. William Tyndale in the sixteenth century coined the term “scapegoat” to describe the function of the goat in this passage.

The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, remains the most important of the high holy days in the Jewish calendar today. It also provides the background for the discussion in Hebrews 9, where the author of Hebrews proclaims Jesus as both the great high priest and the final sacrifice.